Dumber in the city?

Writers never actually own what they write, no matter who holds copyright. Once people engage with your material, it becomes theirs, too. That message came home to me recently when I wrote about a business pitch competition in Roxbury. Personally, I wouldn’t call Roxbury a ghetto, but it is about as inner-city as Boston gets, less than 10 percent white, with some of the stereotypical problems we associate with lower-income urban neighborhoods, including higher crime rates than in many of Boston’s other neighborhoods.

This pitch event, then, was a chance to highlight a different side of Roxbury, which has seen new businesses opening and a new kind of civic energy and engagement. The pitch event featured minority entrepreneurs from the area, most from Smarter in the City, a high tech accelerator in Roxbury’s Dudley Square. I wrote a piece that was a bit whimsical, not taking the straight news approach so much as trying to capture its unique aspects. Pitch competitions or demo days happen in many places, of course, but the famous ones are usually in posh offices or at elite business schools. The people in attendance are mostly white and mostly male, and many of them are rich. This one was in Hibernian Hall, a nicely renovated office building in Dudley Square. Most of the attendees were African-Americans. It was organized by the Bay State Banner, a respected black newspaper.

My piece, and the photos I took for it, titled Pitching Startups Roxbury Style: Apps, Bodyguards and More, highlighted some of the things that were different. One thing being that several of the startups were oriented towards the African-American or urban youth markets. Some are skeptical that accelerators can make a difference in these kinds of neighborhoods, though I think looking for markets at the edges of the economy is a stroke of brilliance.
I’m not African-American, so I wanted to be careful not to play to stereotypes, or reinforce them. At least a couple of readers think I failed. They didn’t like my kicker, which focused on a joke made by one of the winners. Perhaps I could have made it clearer that he was joking (he himself told me he didn’t mind what I’d written, though some of his friends weren’t clear that he was  joking). I thought it captured something about his presence of mind and poise. I also got a lecture about referring to things like the bulls-eye logo of one of the companies. While it obviously reinforces a negative stereotype of violence in Black neighborhoods, I pointed out that the judges of the competition raised the same question, which was why it made the story. It is not my job to hide things, I explained, and I think the differences between this event and one at a place like the Cambridge Innovation Center may have something to say about whether these entrepreneurs make a go of it.

The Bay State Banner’s piece certainly played it straighter. Judge for yourself.

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